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Etymologies in bulk and in bunches

Two things sometimes come as a surprise even to an experienced etymologist. First, it may turn out that such words happen to be connected as no one would suspect of having anything in common. Second is the ability of words to produce one another in what seems to be an arbitrary, capricious, or chaotic way, so that the entire group begins to resemble an analog of a creeping plant (think of an ivy-covered wall). I don’t mean trivial derivatives like standing, stood, understand, or even the horrifying standee from stand. The production of those derivatives is governed by rules.

More enigmatic are the ties that were the object of my recent post (21 April 2021): the wanderings from limp to lump and Dutch lomp “rag” and of all of them to clump and slump, if not to lim-b. As I wrote in the limp ~ lump essay, though some suggestions look plausible, nothing can be proved. Hence the justified but irritating verdict in dictionaries: “Origin uncertain” (not unknown but uncertain!). As ill luck would have it, the sought-for origin will never become certain. The other astounding situation can perhaps be called: “Unexpected connections.” It occurs when a researcher is told that clock and cloak are two variants of the same noun (the common denominator is the bell-shaped form of a cloak; clocks were also connected with bells). Really? Yes, indeed.

The English word balk provides us with both surprise and irritation. I’ll begin with the surprising aspect of its etymology. The noun balc ~ balca “ridge” turned up in Old English texts and is believed to be a borrowing from Old Norse (the attested form in Old Icelandic is balkr “partition,” with short a, not, as often written, bálkr, with long a, which is the word’s  modern form; balkr alternated with bölkr). In following the history of the English word, we should observe that in the sixteenth century, balk (or baulk) acquired the sense “obstacle, hindrance” and even earlier, the verb balk “to stop at the obstacle” was recorded.

Not to be balked. (Image by Mabel Amber, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The cognates of the noun balk “obstacle” were and still are known all over Germanic. West Germanic balk also made its way into Old French. It is known today as bau “beam” and seems to have returned to English in debauch ~ debauchery. French dictionaries exercise caution and add probably to this derivation. Yet Old French desbaucher “to lead astray” might mean “to get over a bar, obstacle, hindrance (“balk”), go beyond a permitted limit; to know no restraint.” Earnest Weekley refused to commit himself to the Germanic etymology of debauch but did not find the suggestion given above improbable and cited delirium as a parallel. Indeed, in delirium (straight from Latin) de– is a prefix, and līra means “a ridge between furrows.” As regards delirium, Weekley thought that we are dealing with a plowing metaphor and cited the modern phrase to run off the rails, along with its German equivalent.  (Weekley, it should be remembered, was the author of a series of excellent popular books on English words. They appeared a century ago but are not a bit outdated.) If ba(u)lk and debauch are related, this is indeed a surprise!

We can now look at how words sprout new words (an analog of asexual propagation). Alongside balk (verb), to bilk “defraud, elude” exists. It surfaced in the seventeenth century, has a slangy tinge, and nothing is known about its origin. The only hypothesis, repeated in dictionaries with or without caveats, is that bilk is the product of a symbolic thinning of the vowel a in balk, that is, to bilk is understood as “to balk in a small way.” Quite possible! Sound symbolism, along with sound imitation, is a recurring theme in this blog. The vowel i is famous for producing the impression of smallness. If asked about riffraff or knickknack, everybody will say the progression is from something small to something big. Why then not bilkbalk? And what about bulk? This is a tougher case.

Wild partying but no debauchery. (Image by Max Titov on Unsplash)

Bulk “stall” is the continuation of the same Old Norse balkr and won’t interest us. In the other noun bulk, etymological dictionaries distinguish three very close senses as possibly unrelated: “cargo,” “mass, volume,” and again “volume, mass.” The division is confusing, and we will let it be. The first sense is (again!) a borrowing from Old Norse (Old Icelandic bulki; búlki, is the modern form). Not improbably, k is here a suffix or some sort of extension, the root being b-l “to swell” (if so, then belly, ball, bull, and a host of other words belong here).

What about balk, our starting point? As we have seen, it contains the original concept of hindrance, not of swelling. Yet balk is related to Greek phálanx, whose initial sense must have been “many soldiers in a row.” Its nearest cognate is Greek phallos, certainly named for its ability to swell. At some point, the ideas of hindrance and swelling almost merge. Indeed, a ridge, a barrier is a kind of swelling impeding one’s progress.

Swollen, swollen! (Image by Walter Baxter, CC-BY-SA/2.0)

This semantic legerdemain may look unimpressive. Yet we observe that the idea of expansion underlies other b-k words. For example, Norwegian bunke means “cargo,” and English bunch once meant “hump, swelling.” Skeat cited Middle English bunchen “to beat” and wrote: “Probably imitative, like bump, bounce.” The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (at bunch) dismisses the problem with the answer: “Origin unknown.” However, one gets the impression that, as far as meaning is concerned, bunk- and bulk– (the latter a member of an extended family, while the former is an orphan) are related in some “symbolic” way, because the idea of swelling underlies both.

If the previous reasoning has any value, we will end up with the alternating roots b-l (k) ~ b-n (k), of which the first was more productive. Both English bulk and Norwegian bunke refer to “cargo.” When we look up bunk and bung in English etymological dictionaries, we find the same answers: “Origin unknown, of uncertain origin; perhaps sound-imitative; probably symbolic.” This is what I meant by asexual propagation. Words’ roots belonging to the same or similar semantic fields alternate, interact, “creep,” and produce distant or close synonyms. Thus, bulge (Latin bulga “leathern sack,” another swelling!), to cite one more example, probably “begat” bilge “the bottom of a ship’s hull” and “the dirt accumulated there.” Whence this b-l ~ b-n symbolism? Did it arise because b a labial sound, with bubbles and blowing appearing as its associates, while the sonorous l and n cling easily to a stop like b? This is perhaps a question for psycholinguists, rather than for etymologists, to answer. I’ll only risk saying that bulk, balk, bilk, along with bunk, and so forth form an extended family, whose members often fail to recognize one another.

In our vocabulary, upstarts are all over the place. They defy the laws of etymological algebra (proper ablaut and regular consonant alterations) and probably show the historian how human speech developed tens of thousands of years ago (sporadically, chaotically, by chance association) and illuminate some corners in the history of slang. Almost any hypothesis on their origin can be easily debunked, but the sheer volume of such words gives us pause. I am severely tempted to add binge to my story, but, knowing next to nothing about the word’s progress, will rather abstain.

Featured image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly you write,

    “In our vocabulary, upstarts are all over the place. They defy the laws of etymological algebra (proper ablaut and regular consonant alterations) and probably show the historian how human speech developed tens of thousands of years ago (sporadically, chaotically, by chance association) and illuminate some corners in the history of slang. Almost any hypothesis on their origin can be easily debunked, but the sheer volume of such words gives us pause.”

    I am pleased you finally came arround to that realization! All words are born out of human experience and not some much contrived etymological “algebra”!

  2. Alan Mighty

    Superb leap, AL! Can we add to the b-n family:
    * bank/banca/bankiz a raised shelf or ridge of earth;
    * bunt, the belly of a sail:
    * bin, a receptacle; and perhaps the core word
    * bun, a swollen loaf; and then expand
    * bunk to include the small family of bunk/bunker, a bin (on a ship) to hold a person, or lumps of coal or slurps of oil, and thence to add coal/fuel to a ship;

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